Babies are funny creatures—they’re pint-sized little humans who have a limited range of abilities, from crying, to eating, to smiling and giggling on occasion. They can’t yet get from one place to another without a little assistance, they can’t spell out for us why exactly they’re upset, and they can’t even understand what it is we’re communicating to them… right?
It’s true: babies rely totally and completely on us for mobility (that is, until they learn to crawl and eventually walk) and they can’t form the words to explain their tantrums—they do, however, have a better understanding of our language than many of us believe to be true.
A previous study from 2012 showed that kids as young as six months old can have a basic understanding of common words—and now a new study “Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds,” which is led by the same author, Elika Bergelson, builds on that knowledge as it shows babies can also make connections and recognize that the meanings of certain words are more alike than others. They can, for example, identify that the word “car” is more similar to the word “stroller” than it is to “juice.”
“Even in the very early stages of comprehension, babies seem to know something about how words relate to each other,” said Bergelson, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. “And already by six months, measurable aspects of their home environment predict how much of this early level of knowledge they have.” She went on to explain that there are even potential interventions for those children who appear to be at risk of language deficits.
To reach these developments, Bergelson studied babies and their reactions to different related images, such as a leg and an arm, as well as unrelated images—like a foot and an apple. Meanwhile, babies’ caregivers were tasked with naming just one of the on-screen images while a tracking device analyzed the babies’ eyes. Bergelson observed that the babies spent more time looking at the vocally identified images when the two were completely unrelated than when they were related. “They may not know the full-fledged adult meaning of a word, but they seem to recognize that there is something more similar about the meaning of these words than those words,” Bergelson explained.
While these findings were telling, Bergelson sought to explore even further—she wanted to see how the babies’ performance at home related back to the lab performance. So, she gifted each caregiver a baby vest with a small audio recorder attached and asked them to record the baby’s audio for a full day—she also provided them with hats, which held video recorders, as to get footage of the baby interacting with his or her caregiver. Then, once Bergelson had all of the audio and video recordings back, the team sorted through and categorized what kind of language the babies heard, how it was spoken, who spoke it, and whether named objects were in view and/or worked with.
The researchers found that the amount of time the caregivers talked about an object in view was in direct relation to a baby’s overall understanding of the said object. In other words, if an object is discussed and identified visually, the baby is more likely to learn something about said object. But if a topic is more abstract and not visually attainable in that moment, the baby likely won’t have a clue what is being talked about.
While we can’t yet conclude from this research just how parents should talk to their babies, Bergelson does offer a piece of advice: “My take-home to parents always is, the more you can talk to your kid, the better,” says Bergelson. “Because they are listening and learning from what you say, even if it doesn’t appear to be so.”
Sources: Duke University (2017, November 20). Car, Stroller, Juice: Babies Understand When Words Are Related. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved November 20, 2017 from http://neurosciencenews.com/baby-related-words-7991/
Bergelson, E., & Aslin R. N. (2017, November 20) Nature and origins of the lexicon in 6-mo-olds. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved November 21, 2017 from http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/11/14/1712966114